Last June, President Obama was pressed at a news conference on how his famous “evolution” on marriage equality was coming along. "I'll keep on giving you the same answer until I give you a different one," he said. It was another in a long line of wink-wink statements indicating that the president’s stated opposition to same-sex marriage was shifting. Everybody knew the “different answer” was coming—just not when. Now we know.
“At a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married,” Obama told ABC’s Robin Roberts today. The interview, which will air in full on tomorrow’s Good Morning America, was hastily arranged when Obama’s “I’m getting there” position on same-sex marriage went from being merely annoying to utterly ludicrous. After Vice President Biden and two cabinet members declared their support for gay marriage, the president’s spokespeople were finding it impossible to make sense of the president’s endless evolutionary process.
Like every queer person in America, I couldn’t help feeling a shot of giddiness as I watched the president of the United States declare his support for marriage equality. This was a historic moment for the LGBT movement. But for me, and I suspect for many others, the celebration is muted by residual frustration over the agonizingly long wait for Obama to make his inevitable announcement—and by his failure to speak out more forcefully against North Carolina’s Amendment One, which passed yesterday and banned not only same-sex marriages but unions and partnerships in my home state. (Even today, Obama said he still supports the “concept” of states deciding the issue on their own.)
Obama’s first reversal on gay marriage, between his 1996 state Senate campaign when he endorsed it and his U.S. Senate campaign in 2004 where he said it was contrary to “my religious faith,” had clear political motivations. And so, of course, does his second turnabout. Obama didn’t want a bitter platform fight about same-sex marriage to mar the requisite show of unity at this summer’s Democratic Convention. He didn’t want to continue to be distracted by the endless questions and silly evasions. Running against the nation’s most infamous political waffler in November, Obama didn’t want to look like a waffler himself.
The political convenience—even necessity—of Obama’s words today doesn’t mean they’re not worth applauding. But I can also understand the reaction of Pam Spaulding, the North Carolina blogger who fought fiercely against Amendment One: “Our lives have been treated like a political football by purported allies as well as professional anti-gays.”
When the president campaigned in North Carolina last week, he was conspicuously silent on the issue the entire state was feuding over. While the Obama campaign had issued a statement opposing the amendment, that was all the help that opponents—not only gay activists, but a vigorous band of African-American pastors and civil-rights leaders—got. Obama likely couldn’t have stopped Amendment One by speaking out forcefully; it passed with more than 60 percent of the vote. But he could have made a difference by helping to reframe the issue, especially for African American supporters who were deeply divided over the amendment.
At The New Yorker, Amy Davidson wrote that the North Carolina defeat should have taught the president a lesson—that even if public opinion is turning in favor of same-sex marriage, you can’t “just step aside and let the waves roll, watching appreciatively from some safe distance, checking, every now and then, to see if anyone would notice if you inched forward. If there is a lesson in the North Carolina vote, it is that complacency on this issue is not a victimless stance. Not all of the movement on gay marriage has been forward progress. There are families whose lives will now get worse. They, and we, have arrived at a moment when politicians—including the President—need to say what they believe, what risks they are willing to take, and what, in the end, is worth fighting for.”
Obama has been less of a leader than a follower on the great civil-rights issue of our time. Now he has a chance to lead—to use his bully pulpit and his eloquence to reshape the discussion over marriage equality. In today’s interview, he made a start on that as he gave his and the first lady’s (current) moral view: “In the end the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people and, you know, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others but, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I’ll be as president.”
Let’s hope this is the start of something, and not just the belated end of an evolution.